Payback day finally arrived yesterday for Charles Morris, the only Baltimore housing official indicted to date in the investigation of the mismanaged $25.6 million no-bid repair program.
Mr. Morris could have received 14 months in prison for accepting $22,000 in illegal payments from contractors. Instead, he received praise from prosecutors -- and probation.
"It's almost like a testimonial here," remarked the judge, who fined him $720.
Since Mr. Morris began cooperating with the government in early 1994, he has been instrumental in the convictions of six contractors. Prosecutors and the judge showed due gratitude yesterday.
In the somber, dark-paneled courtroom of U.S. District Judge Frederic N. Smalkin, the sentencing could almost have been mistaken for a tribute to a civic leader. Not an unkind word was uttered.
U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia made a rare courtroom appearance to describe Mr. Morris as "forthcoming, reliable, dependable" in his help to FBI agents, and in his grand jury and trial testimony.
Even prosecutor Richard Pilger -- who in writing had urged up to eight months in prison and a $22,000 fine for Mr. Morris -- quietly suggested only that the judge impose "some period of incarceration." He did not press the point.
And Aron Raskas, Mr. Morris' lawyer, emphasized that despite taking money from contractors, Mr. Morris never reciprocated with favors to them. The lawyer said a light sentence would send a strong message to the public about the rewards of acknowledging mistakes, coming clean and cooperating with investigators.
The judge himself spoke of the contribution Mr. Morris had made, in particular in testifying at the trial of contractor Larry Jennings Sr. last fall. Judge Smalkin said he did not believe Mr. Morris had solicited illegal payments from any of the contractors. Jennings was convicted of bribing Mr. Morris to help win more than $1.8 million in no-bid work. He will be sentenced Feb. 16.
Judge Smalkin sentenced Mr. Morris to three years of probation, including four months of home detention, and 100 hours of community service.
In addressing the court, Mr. Morris added a few fresh details about the no-bid scandal.
Mr. Morris, who managed the no-bid program, said a supervisor had asked him to write a memo justifying the emergency spending of $150,000 for eight Chevrolet Blazers, which housing officials used as personal vehicles.
"Did we need those vehicles? Absolutely not," he said. He said he also was asked by a superior to "engage in conduct that could result in my dismissal or investigation for criminal conduct." He refused to name the supervisor, saying an FBI investigation is continuing.
A federal audit of the no-bid repair program showed that the Housing Authority of Baltimore City spent more than twice the going rate to fix apartments for the poor, paid contractors for work that was never done and gave millions to firms run by relatives of managers.
A subsequent investigation by The Sun detailed those problems, showing how millions went to contractors with little or no experience, many of whom did poor work.
Despite Mr. Morris' own misdeeds, the judge noted, the jury obviously found him credible, believing him "lock, stock and barrel."
"It's been a long process," Judge Smalkin said, referring to the nearly two years since Mr. Morris began helping investigators.
The judge said he had no intention of incarcerating Mr. Morris in light of his contribution in the investigation. "I thought your cooperation merited it," he said.
"That whole rehab program reeked like a dead mackerel in the sun," Judge Smalkin said. "Let's hope nothing like this happens again."
Mr. Morris said he was "truly sorry" for his illegal actions and asked to be given probation.
"Being sent to prison would shatter me," he told the judge. After his indictment and the loss of his job, Mr. Morris went back to school and earned a certificate in computers and electronics. He said yesterday that he was in the midst of job interviews.